In the past few years, Easton LaChappelle, 17, has been developing a robotic arm that he hopes will be light enough and strong enough to act as a prosthetic device for amputees. And while he’s managed to maintain a near 4.0 GPA at the same time, high school has been getting in the way of his progress.
LaChappelle is creating a robotic arm that is no heavier than a human arm—about 10 pounds—and can be put on and taken off easily, making the wearing of a prosthetic device manageable and eliminating the need for invasive neurological surgery.
He’s spoken with many amputees and prosthetics users who have explained to him how the devices they use now are a struggle. “They’ll tell me they have a device that’s too heavy and too bulky and ends up underneath their bed because it’s too hard to use,” LaChappelle says.
His goal is to keep everything external, wireless, and someday, operated by a control system that interfaces with the brain. He wants to “surpass human functionality with mechanics” by making an arm capable of lifting 200 pounds and rotating 360 degrees.
He taught himself how to do all of this. “School hasn’t really helped at all,” he says. “This is a personal project.”
There were science fairs and awards, but LaChappelle spent most of his time at these events standing in front of his project explaining how it worked until his voice gave out. He rarely had a chance to take part in the real fun of a science fair—going around and seeing other people’s projects.
LaChappelle lives in Mancos, Colorado, a small town in the southwestern portion of the state, right at the Four Corners. Population: 1,200. The nearest Radio Shack is 30 minutes away. He likes it, he says, but as a kid he found there wasn’t much to do except ride a bike, and in his case, “take apart most everything” that had pieces or a motor. He says, “It was good that I was forced into boredom and trying to figure out something else to do.”
His usual routine has been to get through the school day and get home to work on his projects until bedtime. His brother is away at college and he lives with his parents, who are extremely tolerant about what goes on up in their son’s bedroom. The house is small, so they hear everything: “I work with metal a lot, and have to cut it with big blades and stuff. And I do a lot of hammering.”
The bedroom is filled with 3D printers, computers, a workbench with a grinder, a drill press, a big soddering station, numerous robotic arm prototypes and a video camera so he can open source his work on YouTube. LaChappelle says it’s not too bad: “It’s my own space—it could be worse.”
Somewhere in there, he also has a bed, but he doesn’t always have time to use it. He likes to work at night, occasionally all night long, after which he just finds another time to sleep.
“I like to think that I’m a pretty efficient worker,” he says. “I have a semblance of goals that I have to achieve to get things done. I’ll have something printing on the 3D printers and be working on something else. There’s no excuse to have any downtime with a project like this.”
This summer, LaChappelle led a team at NASA that investigated how astronauts on earth control robots in space. He has several college scholarship offers in hand and invitations to direct projects at universities around the world. But he’s also building his own robotics business and says if he went to college now he’d probably just be doing the same work in a different place.
For now, he’s sticking to the familiar. He prefers the solitude of his own workshop in Mancos—7,000 feet above sea level with deserts and canyons not far off. He believes environment can affect a person’s work style.
At night with his bedroom windows open, there are zero distractions and his mind is clear. “It’s kind of peaceful,” he says. “I definitely do think nature helps with productivity, too. I can look outside and see mountains and forests and everything.”
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